The Confucius Institute at the University of the West Indies, Mona, hosted its first conference in June. The theme was ‘Dragons in the Archipelago – the Chinese-Caribbean Experience’. This ‘experience’ wasn’t just about the Chinese. It also included their encounters with other racial groups in the Caribbean.
The history of the relationship between Africans and Chinese in Jamaica is quite troubling. And it’s all the fault of the British. In those long ago days when Britannia ruled the waves, the British assumed the right to move people across the seas as they saw fit. Chinese were exported to the Caribbean as indentured workers in the 19th century.
Dr Victor Chang, a retired senior lecturer who taught literature at the University of the West Indies, Mona, gave an excellent talk on the Chinese riots that took place in Jamaica almost a century ago. Dr Chang quoted an excerpt from Colonial Office correspondence between Attorney General Gloster and Marryat, sent from Trinidad and dated April 3, 1807.
Writing about the immigration of Chinese workers into Trinidad, Gloster states: “For my part, I think it is one of the best schemes; and if followed up with larger importation, and with women, that it will give this colony a strength far beyond what the other colonies possess. It will be a barrier between us and the negroes, with whom they do not associate; and consequently to whom they will always offer a formidable opposition.”
CHINESE SEX DRIVE
So it was a set-up from the very beginning. The newly arrived Chinese were supposed to be permanently at war with black people. But what shortsighted cynics like Gloster did not anticipate is the fact that some barriers can be easily overturned, given the right motivation. The sex drive is a powerful social leveller.
The 1918 Chinese riots in Jamaica were a direct result of the lack of Chinese women. Dr Chang quotes the account of events given by the Jamaican historian Howard Johnson: “Fong Sue, the Chinese grocer, had left his shop on Sunday, 7 July, in charge of his paramour, a Creole woman, Caroline Lindo. He was not expected to return that night.
“Acting Corporal McDonald, who was in charge of the Ewarton Police Station, took advantage of Fong Sue’s absence to sleep with his paramour. Fong Sue returned that same night unexpectedly, at about 11 o’clock, to find McDonald in an intimate embrace with Lindo and, as one contemporary police report delicately noted, ‘in plain clothes’.
“McDonald was given a beating by Fong Sue, with the help of a few Chinese friends, and then made good his escape. He did not return to the police station but remained hidden in the bushes for two days. He eventually reappeared at the police station on the night of Tuesday, 9 July, to resume his duties.”
In less academic language: Fong Sue get bun inna im owna shop. And I wonder about Miss Lindo. Was she just using Fong Sue to get a regular supply of groceries? Trading salt fish for salt fish! And as for acting Corporal McDonald! He seemed to be doing a very good job of acting for Fong Sue. Until Fong Sue, acting like a real Jamaican, beat up his you know what.
I doubt very much that McDonald was wearing plain clothes when he was surprised by Fong Sue. Most likely, he wasn’t wearing any clothes at all. And he certainly wasn’t on official duty – unless Ms Lindo had summoned him to report a robbery in progress. Or to offer herself to be carried away!
VICTIMS AND VILLAINS
So how did this unfortunate episode of Fong Sue getting bun turn into a race riot? Both men and women get bun in Jamaica all the time. Yu either tek yu lickle bun and eat it quietly. Or yu mek up whole heap of noise an carry on bad. But it doesn’t become national news. Unless yu head tek yu an yu decide to act like a mad man or woman and commit murder.
So what made this particular bun so hot? Well, a rumour started that acting Corporal McDonald had actually been murdered by Fong Sue. And The Gleaner is partly to blame. Dr Chang reports that, “The Gleaner of July 8 provides a more sinister and innuendo-filled account which ignores the sexual aspect altogether.”
Chang elaborates: “It claims that McDonald, ‘on whom a savage act is alleged to have been committed by the Chinese, is now missing … a decent, intelligent young man, and a strict disciplinarian had spoken to the Chinese about violating the law of the land by selling on the Sabbath’.” So Fong Sue is now a villain, not a victim.
How does an allegedly ‘strict disciplinarian’ like acting Corporal McDonald end up in Fong Sue’s shop at 11 p.m. locked down with Ms Lindo? And what’s the mysterious ‘savage act’ that Fong Sue is supposed to have perpetrated? It was rumoured that he had pickled McDonald, possibly for sale as salt meat.
That’s the kind of idiocy that results from using people as barriers. Ignorance breeds distrust and starts riots. Even after McDonald turned up very much alive, if not well, the rioting continued and spread across four parishes! Chinese shops were burnt to the ground. A very high price to pay for one ‘bun’!